Google, WhatsApp, and Microsoft side with Apple in FBI encryption case

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum, and a coalition of tech companies including Microsoft are defending Apple's refusal to bypass iPhone encryption. Here are the arguments for and against building a 'backdoor' into communications.

Luca Bruno/AP/File
Apple CEO Tim Cook, shown here at an event in Milan, Italy on November 15, 2015, argued this week that Apple should not be forced to bypass its own encryption software.

When the FBI obtained a court order asking Apple for its help in unlocking the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, Apple took a bold step: it refused.

“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote on Tuesday in a letter to customers.

The FBI argues that it could obtain valuable intelligence from the communications and location data stored on Mr. Farook’s iPhone 5C, and that this intelligence could save lives by preventing terror attacks in the future. In a statement supporting the FBI’s case, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr wrote, “Court orders are not optional and Apple should comply. In this case, under a valid court order, Apple has been asked by the FBI to unlock a government owned cell phone to assist in the investigation of a terror attack that killed 14 Americans.”

FBI Director James Comey has argued that encrypted communications, such as Apple’s iMessage platform, allow criminals and terrorists to “go dark,” making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify individuals who are planning violent acts. Without the cooperation of telecommunications carriers and tech companies such as Apple, Mr. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies “may not be able to identify and stop terrorists who are using social media to recruit, plan, and execute an attack in our country.” 

But Apple holds that the FBI’s limited request – that it disable certain iPhone security features to allow the FBI to access Farook’s iPhone through brute-force password guessing – sets a dangerous precedent by undermining the security measures that keep the communications of law-abiding citizens safe.

On Wednesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sided with Apple, tweeting, “Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy … [Tech companies] give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.”

Apple was also supported by WhatsApp cofounder and CEO Jan Koum, who wrote in a Facebook post, “We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.” And Reform Government Surveillance (RGS), a coalition of tech companies including Microsoft, AOL, Google, Apple, and others, released a statement saying, “Technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users' information secure. RGS companies remain committed to providing law enforcement with the help it needs while protecting the security of their customers and their customers' information.”

Broadly, tech companies have argued that a tool built for a specific purpose – unlocking the iPhone of a single terrorist – could fall into the hands of hackers or criminals, allowing them to unlock others’ phones. Apple also worried in its letter that the government could expand its powers in the future to compel tech companies to build surveillance software or otherwise spy on their users.

Apple will appeal the FBI’s request to the Californian district court that made the order; if the order still stands after appeal, Apple may choose to elevate the case to a higher court.

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